The textures, smells, colours, and sounds of the outdoors are all there, waiting to be explored, write Suzi Hoskins and Claire Abercrombie.

If you’re considering taking students with additional needs outdoors but are unsure where to start, the process can be simpler than you might think and yield greater benefits than anticipated. It’s an opportunity to introduce your pupils to new and marvellous experiences, and awaken their senses.

Many children with additional needs rarely get the opportunity to venture outside, often due to transportation issues, logistical constraints, medical requirements, the need for close supervision, or the challenge of dealing with sensory sensitivities outdoors. By stepping into the open, you can escape the confines of the classroom, away from the constant noise and artificial lighting that can be distractions for some children.

Being outdoors provides opportunities to stimulate students mentally, physically, and socially. In some special schools, students are more likely to form closer bonds with their adult support workers than their peers simply because they spend more time with them. By facilitating teamwork, you can help them build relationships and gain confidence in communicating with peers of their own age. Empowering students through choices and involving them in decision-making, using whatever means of communication necessary, can be transformative.

To support students while outdoors, consider implementing a visual timetable or incorporating an object or sensory reference point related to specific outdoor activities. Including a question mark in the timetable indicates that unplanned or free-choice activities may arise, allowing staff to explore the students’ interests and helping those who struggle with routine changes develop resilience.

Developing your outdoor space requires careful consideration and planning. Think about how children will move around the area, the materials you will use, and what elements will offer interest and challenge. Consider creating zones for quiet time, keeping messy or noisy areas separate from calm spaces. Incorporating sensory features, such as wrapping upright supports in artificial grass or different fabrics, hanging solar lights, or painting each upright a different colour, can enhance the outdoor experience.

Creating spaces for gardening can have a calming effect. Even simply looking at images of trees or holding wooden or stone objects can be soothing. If you have children who may put things in their mouths, consider planting safe-to-eat plants like dandelions, watercress, wild garlic, hawthorn leaves, berries, flowers, lettuce, and root vegetables in raised beds or hanging baskets.

To spark curiosity in your outdoor spaces, think about how you notice things when your everyday route to work changes, such as a house painted a different colour. Introducing something different to your outdoor spaces will catch the children’s attention and encourage exploration. Whether you have concrete areas or expansive grassy spaces, make changes for the children to discover, like placing books around for them to find or providing various mark-making materials for large-scale artwork using wheelchair tracks, handprints, footprints, or fingerprints.

■ Painting with puddles.

Not every idea will work for every child. Children are unique, and what works one day may not on another. However, until you try, you’ll never know. Start small, especially if going outside is a new experience for your students. Begin by staying close to the building and engage in quieter activities like reading stories. Gradually expand your outdoor activities to cover larger areas and include more physical, messy, or noisy activities.

You don’t have to take resources with you. Instead, make use of what’s readily available outdoors: trees, leaves, bark, grass, tarmac, or fences. The textures, smells, colours, and sounds of the outdoors are all there, waiting to be explored.

Claire Abercrombie
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Claire Abercrombie Training and Development Officer at Learning through Landscapes (LtL).

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